In George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, civilization is destroyed as disease caused by our dying planet wipes out most of humanity. The world and its inhabitants adapt to the changing situation, returning to a more primitive way of living. As the world rebuilds itself, the only thing for certain is that it cares nothing for the humans that live there. Humankind, particularly civilization, means nothing in the course of our planet’s history. It will continue on without us.
The novel follows Isherwood Williams, called Ish, as he tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. As he discovers his friends and family are dead, he struggles to adapt to his new situation. He adopts a dog, Princess, and eventually marries a woman named Em. He and Em have many children together, including Joey, an intelligent boy who Ish believes to be the best hope for the future. As Ish imagines rebuilding civilization with Joey at his side, his children and the other children in his “Tribe” move on, learning to deal with new circumstances. When Joey is killed by another wave of disease, Ish loses hope, and his brand of intelligence is all but wiped out. Humanity reverts to a primitive state, and Ish becomes, “The Last American.”
The novel deals with the main theme of our insignificance as human beings. Even when we destroy the planet, it fights back against us and carries on. The idea of being punished for our wrongs against the Earth is not only touched upon with the overarching theme of the diseases that systematically wipe out humans, but specifically with the death of Charlie. Charlie admits when drunk that he has several STDs, so the Tribe kills him. Soon after, a disease kills five of their children, including Joey, Ish’s favorite. The Earth “punishes” those that poison it, and in the long run, they revert to their original state. Earth Abides is a gripping, gritty novel that imagines a future that is much like our past. I highly recommend it to all sci-fi fans, particularly those interested in climate change’s effects on our world.